By Mark Dundas Wood
Metropolitan Room – May 5, 10, 19, 24, June 16
2011 Bistro Award winner Carole J. Bufford celebrates the music of the Prohibition era, backed by Grammy-winning Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, in a classy, solid and thoroughly entertaining program—a must-hear for anyone interested in the history of American popular music (and a must-go for anyone interested in having a really swell time). The arrangements and orchestrations by Larry Lees pulse with the reckless energy of urban life in the 1920s and early 1930s. The sense that this show is a special occasion—not just some ordinary, run-of-the-gin-mill cabaret show—extends even to the hooch menu at the Metropolitan Room, where cocktails with such antique-sounding names as "The Mary Pickford" and "The Monkey Gland" are offered.
The show begins with the Nighthawks' hot-licks turn on Lees's original composition "Chicken Daddy"—an overture of sorts for Bufford, who makes her entrance with flair. With her slim, somewhat androgynous presence, she couldn't go wrong in kicking things off in flapper mode with the booze-centric "Wet Your Whistle" (Francis Byrne, Frank McIntyre, Percy Wenrich). Lees has given the song a wonderfully crazy arrangement—erupting with slide-whistle effects and the sound of a trumpeting elephant (presumably a pink one) punctuating the lyric "You can see more animals if you drink a little rye." Bufford follows this up with a paean to the era's other major obsession, with the Cole Porter standard "Let's Misbehave." These opening songs provide a brisk start for the singer. Bufford is, by turns, sassy and sunny—and you can't pull your eyes or ears away from her. But the flapper business makes up only a small part of the territory she will explore in this varied program.
Bufford becomes a lilting-voiced musical theatre ingénue on Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert's "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." With Porter's "Love for Sale," she's a vamp who needs to keep the meter running, moaning low as she luxuriates in her fallen-woman predicament, her nostrils recoiling as she sings of "love that's only slightly soiled." And Bufford stages her own one-woman Harlem renaissance with the bawdy "You've Got the Right Key, But the Wrong Keyhole" (Clarence Williams, Eddie Green). At the show's debut performance, after her scorching rendition of the number, Bufford gleefully asked the audience: "Don't you guys love a dirty blues song?" (If there were any lonely prudes in the room, they chose not to voice their dissenting votes.)
Topping herself, Bufford gives us her daring impersonation of a drug addict seeking (and finding) a fix on Marion Sunshine's "When I Get Low, I Get High." Here she performs in a stylized, almost operatic way that many a young singer would kill to be able to pull off so smoothly. On songs like this one, Bufford runs the risk of appearing ridiculously melodramatic, even silly. But as an actor she commits fully to the material, with every twist of her sinuous arms, every sudden flare of her fingers. Like a twentyish Streisand tearing through "Cry Me a River," or early Jane Olivor bearing down like a watchful bird of prey on "Some Enchanted Evening," Bufford just goes for it—vocally, physically, psychically. It takes considerable guts to end your set with the Al Jolson signature number "My Mammy" (Walter Donaldson, Joe Young, Sam M. Lewis), with its now-embarrassing evocation of the corked-up minstrel-show past. Bufford honors the song's show-biz pedigree but makes the song her own. Thanks to a personalized introduction, she makes it, essentially, about celebrating one's female elders. And she nails the number handily, without a shadow of self-doubt or self-consciousness.
Between numbers, she provides some thoughtful and often amusing (if not particularly extensive) historical context for the musical material—talking about such figures as entrepreneur Texas Guinan and pioneer crooner Vaughn De Leath. She leads a fun sing-a-long on the familiar "Side by Side" (Harry Woods, Gus Kahn), noting that the title preceded the Great Depression by a couple of years, despite its we're-in-this-mess-together sentiment. And she steps back and lets each member of the Nighthawks have a dazzling turn in the spotlight on Tom Delaney's "The Jazz Me Blues."
A talent for mimicry is important in tackling a program of vintage songs like these. Bufford at moments sounds like other great singers—everyone from Eartha Kitt to Doris Day. But I get a sense that she connects with this music on a deeper, more elemental level than that of a mere impressionist. If time travel were an option, I can imagine her journeying back and wowing the customers in a genuine speakeasy.
"speak easy." is a highball from which no thirsty cabaret lover should abstain. And Carole J. Bufford is the hepcat's satin pajamas.